The Calgary Flames are legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup this season. Even so, their odds of winning are long, and to improve their chances, they should add another offensive, puck-moving defenceman. That will not be an easy task for general manager Brad Treliving, but it should be at the top of his to-do list between now and the NHL trade deadline on Mar. 21.
Flames Should Contend for the Cup
Let’s get the congratulatory remarks out of the way. As of this writing, the Flames sit atop the Pacific Division and second behind the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference. With a points percentage of .673, they are tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins at eighth in the league. Their goal-differential at plus-55 puts them alongside the Carolina Hurricanes at third best league-wide. They are also riding the longest winning streak of any team this season at 10 games.
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Vezina Trophy candidate Jacob Markstrom is the backbone of the Flames’ defence, owning almost one-tenth of all shutouts recorded in the league with eight. The team’s first line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk is probably the best in the league, and with the addition of Tyler Toffoli and Blake Coleman, the Flames have a league-leading top-nine. They are a big, defensively-oriented team that is built for the playoffs.
Weaknesses on Flames’ Blue Line
Even so, if the Flames can be said to have a weakness, it’s their defence. They don’t have a true number-one blueliner. None of their defensemen can be found among the league’s top 20 in points. While it’s true that every defenceman on the team is having the best year of their NHL careers, even head coach Darryl Sutter has said several times that the team needs more puck movement from the back end.
Pundits will point out that Oliver Kylington fits the bill as a puck-moving D-man. With 24 points in 48 games, he is second to Rasmus Andersson in points among Calgary blueliners. With six goals this season, he leads the D-corps in scoring, and his average ice time per game is up by almost five minutes from last season; his plus-27 rating is also the best among Calgary defencemen.
Still, Kylington is not an elite blueliner in terms of offence, ranking 39th in the league in points. While he isn’t afraid to jump into the attack and transitions his team to offence with great zone exits and crisp passes to breaking forwards, he gives away the puck far too often. With little playoff experience, he is untested when the stakes are high.
Some will point out that Andersson is having a bounce-back year and is a potent offensive threat off the blue line. Still, he never became the offensive player many predicted he would be during his junior career. When it comes to points production, he’s middling by NHL standards and is not the run-and-gun, high-risk and reward defenseman that Kylington has become.
Just because the Flames have one of the best goal differentials in the league doesn’t mean that their blue line is of championship calibre. Much of the team’s ability to keep the puck out of the back of their net is because of Markstrom’s magic between the pipes. Still, to be fair, the Flames’ goaltending and defence go hand in hand, and both feed off each other. One wouldn’t be as good without the other.
The Flames’ third defence pairing is another reason they need an additional offensive defenceman. While the combination of Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson brings size and toughness to the blue line, they are slow. That would be a considerable liability in the playoffs when the speed of the game accelerates.
Injuries are inevitable, and the Flames would be in trouble if they had to turn to seventh D-man Michael Stone for help in the playoffs. Connor Mackey and Juuso Valimaki could be called up from the farm team in Stockton to cover injuries, but that would not be ideal in a playoff run. All of this speaks to the need for another solid defenseman to don the Flaming C this season.
Will Flames Trade for Top-Tier Defenseman?
Asked last week whether more trades were in the cards for the Flames in the lead up to the trade deadline, Treliving told SportsNet’s Flames Talk, “We’re gonna watch. You gotta be careful just adding to add, but if we can find ways to help ourselves, we will.”
Even so, Treliving has never underestimated the difficulty of making acquisitions. He will have just shy of $1 million in cap space at the deadline, given his current roster. Defencemen with offensive talent are hard to find. Making it harder is finding one who is affordable, has term left on his contract and belongs to a team that is selling. Not only that, but it’s likely that any seller will need to retain some salary to help Calgary fit the player under their limited cap space.
Blueliners for Flames to Target at 2022 Trade Deadline
As Treliving summed it up heading into training camp in September, “I can’t click my heels and make things happen. You have to have a trade partner. It’s great to say, ‘Go get this guy.’ Problem is, this isn’t fantasy hockey. The idea that you can go pick ‘this player’ off the player tree … It doesn’t happen that way.”
So, as difficult as it may be, who might be on Treliving’s shopping list? Here’s a look at a few blueliners who might be on it.
The former Flames captain, now playing that role with the Seattle Kraken, keeps coming up as a trade target. He becomes an unrestricted free agent (UFA) this summer, and many believe that the Kraken would be willing to trade him to acquire assets rather than see him leave town for nothing.
Absorbing Giordano’s $6.75-million cap hit will be a challenge. Even if they could solve that problem, the Flames will need to pay a hefty price to acquire him. In return for not selecting him in the 2021 NHL Expansion draft, the Kraken asked for a first-round pick and either a second or third-rounder. Kraken general manager Ron Francis could put the same price on the table at the deadline.
Whether Treliving will pay that much is an open question. Even so, Giordano is on track for 38 points this season – the same rate at which he notched them last year in Calgary during the COVID-19 shortened season. There is no question that at his best, Giordano would be an impressive addition to the Flames’ firepower off the blue line.
Sure, Chychrun only has two goals in 39 games with the Arizona Coyotes this season, but let’s be honest, even Jesus Christ would have a hard time scoring with the Coyotes. They are that bad. At just 23 years old with three years left on his contract, Chychrun would be an investment in the future for the Flames. Last season, he notched 18 goals and 23 assists in 56 games, which would put him on track for 60 points over a full 82-games season. He ranked 10th last year in scoring among NHL defensemen.
Under contract with an annual-average-value (AAV) of $4.6 million, it would be challenging – but not impossible – to fit him under the Flames’ cap. Since the ‘Yotes are rebuilding and selling assets, and Calgary is flush with picks and prospects, a deal for Chychrun should be possible.
When healthy and playing an 82-game schedule, the Dallas Stars’ John Klingberg can be counted on to produce at least 50 points per season. Last year, among NHL defensemen, he ranked 13th in the league in points.
A pending UFA this summer and reportedly unhappy in the Lone Star State, the 29-year-old Swede would come with an AAV of $4.25 million. That means Treliving would have to get creative in fitting him under the cap. However, he could come to Cowtown as a rental at the cost of a combination of some depth players (to unload salary) along with a prospect or two.
Even so, all the speculation about Klingberg is moot unless the Stars throw in the towel on a playoff run. Sitting at fifth in the Central Division, the Stars are still in the hunt for a wild-card spot. If they remain there in the lead-up to the trade deadline, Klingberg is probably off the market.
With an AAV of $5.5 million per year, the Detroit Red Wings’ Nick Leddy would be an expensive playoff rental for the Flames. During his best years with the New York Islanders, he was a 40-point player and produced at that rate in 2020-21 until sliding back this season, playing with the sad-sack Red Wings.
Leddy would bring considerable playoff experience to Calgary. He also knows what it takes to win the Cup, having skated with the 2013 champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The rebuilding Buffalo Sabres might be willing to part with Miller at the trade deadline. He is a right-shot blueliner with respectable offensive upside. In return, the Sabres would be looking for picks and prospects.
That’s something that Treliving has always been reluctant to part with, but if this season truly is his best shot at engineering a Cup win, then he needs to think about mortgaging at least part of the Flames’ future by giving up young talent.
Miller becomes a free agent in July and carries a cap hit of $3.875 million. His points production has dropped off since coming to the Sabres three years ago, but that’s what happens with most skaters playing on a team that is now the NHL’s punching bag. His best season was 2017-18 when he racked up 41 points with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Is a Big Trade In the Cards for Calgary?
Like any NHL general manager, Treliving spends a good part of his day trying to figure out how to make his team better. Now that the Flames have their best shot at bringing Lord Stanley’s chalice to the Stampede City since 2004 when Sutter brought them to within a whisker of doing that, he’ll redouble his efforts. Expect another big trade at or before the trade deadline, and this one should be for an offensive defenseman.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames, the Ottawa Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for The Hockey Writers (THW). He also hosts the Flames Faceoff show for THW’s Podcast Network.
Paul has been sought for media interviews for the thoughtful pieces he has written on hockey’s response to the major social and political issues of the day including the place of gay players in the game. Paul is also known for his interesting perspectives on the key issues and challenges facing the teams he follows.
Of his work with THW, Paul says, “I love to tell stories about the game of hockey and the personalities – both past and present, who have made it the greatest game on the planet!”
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